In this post, I review two recent law firm memos examining the state of class action litigation in Australia and Mexico, respectively. I first review class actions in Australia, and then examine class actions in Mexico below.
Class actions, which have been available as a procedural alternative in Australia since 1992 are “now an established part of Australia’s litigation landscape, according to a March 2, 2012 memorandum from the King & Wood Mallesons law firm entitled “Class Actions in Australia: The Year in Review 2011” (here). Though the “introduction of class action regimes has not yet led to the flood of litigation that some commentators had prediction,” the memo notes, class actions “remain a significant concern for both directors and in-house counsel alike due to the scale of many of these claims.”
According to the memo, an average of only 14 class actions is filed every year in the Federal Court (including all types of cases, including consumer actions), representing less than 1% of all Federal Court proceedings. The authors note that during 2011, a number of significant new shareholder class actions were commenced, including cases involving Nufarm, Gunns, and ABC learning. Though there “was no single standout settlement” during the year, the total value of 2011 shareholder class settlements was over $500 million.
During 2011, “significant pre-litigation requirements” were introduce in Federal Court, which requires parties to file statements setting out the “genuine steps” they have taken to try to resolve a dispute or to clarify the issues between them. The memo notes though is early yet to assess the impact of these requirements on class actions, “plaintiff representatives have stated that they consider the regime a powerful tool for obtaining information on liability from defendants sooner, thereby pushing class actions to early resolution.” With these rules in place, the authors expect that Federal Courts will “take a much more active approach to managing class actions in its jurisdiction.”
The Australian class action system has a number of distinctive features, including the use of an “opt out” class action system, whereby class members are included in the class unless they take positive steps to remove themselves from the class. The Australian approach to class actions is also characterized by the increasing presence of litigation funders that sponsor claims. These two characteristics have come together in the growth of “closed classes,” which limit the group members to persons who have retained the solicitors involved or have entered an agreement with the litigation funders.
Though this “closed class” approach has been criticized, they have also been approved by the courts, “even though the effect is to convert the statutory opt out regime into an opt in regime and so exclude potential claimants.” The memo notes that “the increased use of closed classes reflects a desire by funders and solicitors to have certainty of returns,” and may even be of benefit to defendants, “enabling them to better ascertain their potential liability and thereby promote settlement.”
Another recent development has been the rise in the involvement of law firms “not traditionally identified with class actions.” This has not only led to the rise of competing class action lawsuits, but it has also led to the procedural issues, due to the complexity of the litigation procedures involved. A series of decisions cited in the memo demonstrates that “class action practice remains technical” and any party involved in class litigation “must remain mindful of the additional requirements imposed concerning the conduct of such proceedings.”
On the other hand, “recent settlements also show that acting in class actions, either as the plaintiffs’ lawyers or the litigation funders, may be a good investment.” The authors cite one recent settlement in which the court approved plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees of A$25 million. The authors also note that in the Oz Minerals shareholder class action, two plaintiffs’ firms were awarded just under A$5 million in legal fees, and the litigation funder reported a net gain of A$12.8 million.
During 2011, claimants showed an “increased willingness” to include advisors as class action defendants. The authors note that “in some cases, this is a pragmatic decision given the insolvency of the true target of the litigation” and reflects “a recognition by plaintiff lawyers that advisors, covered as they may be by professional indemnity insurance and with professional reputations to protect, could alter the settlement dynamic,” though the involvement of multiple defendants could result in greater costs, complexity and delay. The authors cite 2011 class actions in which the defendants include auditors, stock brokers and financial advisors.
In an observation that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog, the authors note that “one development that was predicted but has not been common” is “the inclusion of company directors as individual defendants to class actions.” The authors suggest that this “reflects the belief that it is the company that has the deeper pockets and reputation to protect, and it is generally the more lucrative target.” The authors do note at least a couple of exceptions, in which the target company was insolvent or in administration, where directors and advisors “remain attractive defendants.”
The involvement of litigation funding firms has been part of the scene for years but questions continue to arise, even through satellite litigation, including disputes over the funders’ funding arrangements. In addition, in 2011 draft regulations were introduced that would impose a requirement that all litigation funders have adequate policies and procedures in place to manage any conflicts of interest. Others have called for the funders to be licensed and registered. Despite this agitation, though, “litigation funding in Australia is an increasingly sophisticated business.” The authors also note that the funders’ “financial imperative,” which encourages selectivity to ensure returns, “will continue to impose some degree of discipline on the funding industry.”
The report notes that during 2011, courts considering proposed settlements took the involvement of litigation funders into account in assessing the settlements. The courts expressly took into account the amount to be paid to the funder.
The authors conclude their memo with the an expression of their expectation that during 2012, class action proponents will continue to push class action proceedings into nontraditional areas, and that many of the claims may be advanced by “new entrants” into the class action arena, including “overseas sources of funding.” The authors also expect that during 2012 there may be important rulings on critical issues such as causation and reliance, the potential liability of outside advisors (such as auditors and rating agencies). In addition, the question of increased governmental regulation of litigation funding is “expected to remain a live issue well into 2012.”
Beginning March 1, 2012, companies doing business in Mexico will face the risk of class action lawsuits in Mexican federal courts, according to a March 2012 memorandum from the Jones Day law firm entitled “New Class Action Rules in Mexico Create Significant Risks for Companies Doing Business in Mexico” (here).
Pursuant to a series of legislative enactments, private plaintiffs, government entities and certain nonprofits may bring consumer, financial, antitrust and environmental claims as “collective” lawsuits. The legislation authorizes the courts to award classwide-damages and injunctive relief. The provisions allow for a highly expedited class certification process, although the litigation regime is built on an “opt in” rather than an “opt out” scheme.
The memo’s authors note that among the many unknowns about this new Mexican class action regime is the res judicata effect of a judgment in a collective action. The memo notes that “it is not known whether an individual who fails to opt in to a collective action … will be precluded from bringing future lawsuits.”
The legislation’s features relating to fees may impose a certain limitation on the attractiveness of these kinds of actions. Thus, although an unsuccessful plaintiff will not be required to pay any portion of the defendant’s legal fees, the new laws cap plaintiffs’ fees based on a calculation linked to the minimum wages in Mexico City. The purpose of these provisions is to reduce the percentage of a judgment that goes to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Obviously these provisions “reduce the incentive for plaintiffs’ attorneys to bring such lawsuits.
The memo, which also contains helpful comparisons between the new Mexican collective action scheme and collective actions under Brazilian law and class actions under U.S. law, concludes that “while there are a whole host of questions about the new laws that remain unanswered,” the new collective action procedure “presents significant new risks for businesses operating in Mexico.”
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2010 decision in the Morrison case, non-U.S. investors have been forced to consider alternatives to securities claims in U.S. courts as a way to try to recoup losses based on alleged misrepresentations and omissions. Developments in Canada and Netherlands have raised the profile of procedures available in those countries as potential alternative means for shareholder recoveries.
Australia remains yet another alternative jurisdiction. With its opt out class action system and the availability of litigation funding to finance claims, the Australian class action scheme as certain attractive features. In addition, class action litigation is already a recognized part of the litigation landscape there. The Australian class action regime has previously been employed to facilitation shareholder class recoveries. Nevertheless, the Australian class action system is still evolving, with many critical legal issues yet to be addressed. As the authors of the legal memo note, “we have not yet seen a marked increase in the prevalence of Australian shareholder class actions.”
In the post-Morrison environment, class action litigation developments in any jurisdiction will be watched closely. The relative maturity of the Australian class action litigation scheme and the extent of activity already in that country will make Australia a country worth watching closely. The willingness of plaintiffs’ lawyers and litigation funders to take on these cases suggests that Australia may be a country in which shareholder class action litigation advances significantly in the years ahead.
As for Mexico, the new regime has only just become effective, and there are too many unanswered questions about the new provisions to make any sort of assessment. It is noteworthy that an increasing number of jurisdictions are adopting procedures that provide means for aggrieved persons to seek collective relief. As more countries adopt procedures of this type, aggrieved investors increasingly will seek to use these procedures. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Morrison decision may have had the unanticipated effect of accelerating this process.